Tag: Persia/Iran

In-Depth Nick Analysis: Who Are The Basij? The Group That Stopped A New Iranian Revolution

If you’re like me, you’ve been closely following reports of the attempts at “soft overthrow” by “Green Revolution” protesters clogging the streets in Iran (properly pronounced E-ron, though I admit even I mangle it frequently). Twitter, bloggers (Nico Pitney blogging at HuffPo, Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic) and various print news web sites (TIME, Reuters) have provided much more coverage of these historic events than the perennially shameful television news media, who only bring us vapid “infotainment.” As the first street revolution in the Islamic world since the Cedar Revolution (Lebanon) and the Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan) in spring of ’05, both of which forced their regime to resign, it should’ve garnered much more TV time than it did. As keepbreathing said on the Respiratory Therapy 101: Just Keep Breathing blog “If only the Iranian police had killed Michael Jackson, maybe the world would pay more attention to the travesties going on in that formerly great nation.”

Just as in Kyrgyzstan’s revolution, in Iran, mostly young people, tired of decades of authoritarian rule, took to the streets en masse to overturn a fraudulent election that had ratified the rule of a dictator. In Kyrgyzstan, the protests were so loud, the people so united, that old Soviet boss Askar Akayev saw his power base erode to the point that continuing in office was too risky and untenable; protesters seized the presidential offices, and he ended up escaping to Russia. In Iran, this didn’t happen; the regime didn’t budge. Why? Because the entrenched support base loyal to the regime, especially the Sepah (Revolutionary Guards) and the Basij, wouldn’t allow it.

A photo of Basij volunteers drilling in their drill uniforms.  (Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP)
A photo of Basij volunteers drilling in their drill uniforms. (Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP)

Who are the Basijis? The best way for an American to understand them is as a combination of the Boy Scouts, the revolutionary Minutemen, the Taliban and the legend of the Persian Hashshashins (Assassins) who would take themselves out with their foes. The Basijis are a volunteer militia operated as an auxiliary of the Sepah, and take orders directly from Sepah commanders and the Supreme Leader, not the president. The Basijis are mostly religious youth, and they are charged with protecting the regime, along with Shia Islam and its people’s “virtues.” To show their Islamic virtue they may work in mosques, help elderly people cross the street, give gasoline to people stranded in their cars on the side of the road, or, on the other side of the coin, intimidate and assault Iranians dressed in “immoral” attire, and haul suspected dissidents into the nearest police station. The Basij responds to threats to the regime within and without; they played a key role in the Iran-Iraq war, with mass “human wave” martyr attacks by teenage Basijis to clear minefields and terrify Saddam’s troops, and they have often crushed Iranians citizens’ demonstrations, most notably during the uprising that followed the June 12 rigged election of this year, and the student protests of July ’99.

The founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Basij (pronounced BAH-siege) when he became leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. It was a shrewd move. Khomeini knew that he would always have a lot of enthusiastic extreme-fundamentalist young men on his hands, and it’s smarter to protect your Right flank, honor them and harness their energy to protect the regime, than it is to let them fester ignored until they become something that could overthrow him. In Persian, the Basij (literally, “Mobilization”) are also called Basij-e Mostaz’afin, “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” and there is a clear “class warfare” element to them. The Basijis are mostly poor, young, and fundamentalist, and they are often pitted against the mostly secular, modernizing upper class. President Ahmadinejad was a Basij, with the Basij culture and chip on the shoulder, and he framed the rich elite as decadent, corrupt, and “oppressing” the hard-working, pious, rural poor.

Ahmadinejad and fellow Basij veterans, in ceremonial uniform
Ahmadinejad and fellow Basij veterans, in ceremonial uniform

For Iran’s rulers, this has them sitting pretty: in addition to having the judiciary, military and local officials firmly behind them, they can rally a religious proletariat to the defense of Islamic government whenever needed, with angry young Basijis as the head of the spear. Despite dissent from other Ayatollahs (Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Mohajerani, Ayatollah Rafsanjani), the government’s lessened legitimacy and growing feeling in Iran’s cities that the current regime’s enforcers (Sepah, Basij, local police) are no better than the Shah’s brutal secret police (the SAVAK) that they united against in 1979, this regime is deeply entrenched, and the Persian people* will likely be watched over by Ayatollah Khomeini’s evil glare everywhere for years to come.

For more information on the Basij:
The New Yorker: Jon Lee Anderson: Understanding The Basij

Basij Violence In The News:
LA Times: Tehran’s streets erupt after a key cleric speaks

From The Miami Herald, a cartoon showing New Boss, Same As The Old Boss, the Islamic Republic attacking their own people just as the Shah did
From The Miami Herald, a cartoon showing "New Boss, Same As The Old Boss," the Islamic Republic attacking their own people just as the Shah did

Contrasting brave Iranians willing to protest despite very real risk to life and limb with couch potato Americans doing little for their freedom, I feel like I’m in a nation of proles. Like Iranians, we Americans used to be a proud and revolutionary people. I hope that isn’t completely dead.


*For the uninitiated, Iranians are sometimes still referred to as “Persians,” and their country was called “Persia” by outsiders from the 5th century BC up until 1935, when Reza Shah Pahlavi issued a decree requesting everyone use Iran, meaning “the land of Aryans,” which Iranians had been calling their country since about 1000 BC. For more information, see Iran Naming Convention. Iranians are an Aryan/Indo-European people, and in physical appearance, look little different from the related Caucasians in the nearby Caucasus region. They are white people. Too many Americans lump Iraq and Iran together and say “bomb all them A-rabs,” which couldn’t be more wrong. Iranians are not Arabs, have a proud history and culture totally distinct from Arabs, speak a language (with grammar similar to many contemporary European languages) unintelligible to those who only understand Arabic, and Iranians’ bitter rivalry and wars with the proto-Arab and Arab peoples of the Fertile Crescent span back to the first written records of the region recorded by Sumerians. Saddam Hussein was infamous for his hate of Persians.

This Day In History, U.S. Overthrows Iran Gov’t

On this day, August 19, in 1953, the Americans and British overthrew the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh ended (BP) British Petroleum’s monopoly over Iranian oil, and *gasp* nationalized their oil fields so that Iranians would benefit from their own resources.

The Western powers, angry at being cut out of the oil money, and fearing the wave of anti-corporate sentiment would allow Iran to fall under Soviet influence, imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, plunging their people into poverty and the country into chaos. Then the UK and U.S. decided to stage a coup d’etat.

Operation Ajax, led by the CIA, deposed and imprisoned Prime Minister Mossadegh, and installed sympathetic general Fazlollah Zahedi in his place. Not only did BP retain a hold over Iran’s oil, but Shell oil and other corporations got a piece of the pie.

Imagine what could’ve happened if Mossadegh had succeeded? Democracy may have spread from Iran all over the Middle East.
We stopped democracy cold. We don’t want democracy in the region.

In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued an official U.S. apology to the Iranian people for the overthrow. “We deposed your democracy. Sorry about that.”

CIA documents about the coup were also released in 2000, and they contained the first use of the term “blowback.”
And man, was there major blowback from Operation Ajax. It created deep and lasting rage that led directly to the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and continues to be reflected in the body counts of U.S. troops in the various wars in the region since then.

Happy un-democracy anniversary, Iran!


U.S. Foreign Policy In Deep Shi’ite

U.S. Foreign Policy In Deep Shi’ite

An in-depth analysis

In 2007, the dominant news story will be the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq. War is also the dominant spiritual and moral issue of my generation. It’s impossible for me not to blog about this.

The president has ordered a “surge,” or increase of 21,500 troops, which brings us to roughly 2004-troop-levels. This didn’t work in 2004, so it is unlikely to change things.

His saber-rattling regarding Iran and Syria is also unsettling. I liked that movie better the first time, when it was called Nixon Illegally Orders Crossborder Raids Into Laos and Cambodia Without Authorization.

But let’s cut past all the obvious problems, cut through the spin, and get behind the headlines to the underpinning issues.

Let’s talk about Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq.

Where is the Prime Minister coming from?
Nouri al-Maliki is from the
Dawa Party, the stringently Shi’ite political party.

The Dawa Party has been singularly running the Iraqi government since May.

Who founded the Dawa Party? Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.

The fact that the father-in-law of militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr founded the ruling party in Iraq, tells you A LOT about what is behind the current upheaval.

What this means is, the Iraqi government is closely linked to the Sadrist movement at best, and, at worst, is its wholly-owned subsidiary.

When the Shi’ites lynched Saddam, they chanted “Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr! Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr!”

So we’ve had Sadrists running Iraq. They’ve ruthlessly cracked down on Sunnis. All but the entirety of the Sunni upper and middle class (an estimated 1-2 million Iraqis) have relocated to Amman, Jordan, transforming the makeup of Iraq and the makeup of Jordan. I see no indication those Sunnis will ever re-enter Iraq en masse.

We will continue to see that is Iraq is now a profoundly Shi’ite nation, unrecognizable compared to Hussien’s reign, with the Sadrists currently holding the power center. During Saddam, Shias were a majority, but now that they’ve disbanded his secular Ba’ath Party, lynched him and
1-2 million Sunnis have relocated, the Shi’ites are a super-majority in Iraq. With the U.S military keeping a lid on the Sunni insurgency, there’s no succeeding countervailing influence to total Shi’ite dominance. I’ve been following the news closely, and in recent years the Shias have remade Baghdad in their own image. It is now a Shia capital of a new Shia nation. It will continue to be profoundly Shia. And in these desperate times, moderate voices are a minority with no sway to speak of. I’m not saying that only militants and fundamentalists are left in Iraq. I’m saying that Shias, with their own strict brand of Iranian-bred Islam are now a super-majority in Iraq, and we are now dealing with an Iraqi nation that is more Shia-dominated, more fundamentalist, and more fractured and violent than ever expected . Jeffersonian democracy just ain’t in the cards.

Currently, the Dawa Party government (in short, Sadrists) are running the show, though they are fighting a nasty civil war against the Sunni tribesmen on their west and the Iranian-backed Badr Brigades on their east (Shias murdering huge amounts of fellow Shias) among many other groups that spring up or shift every week.

In medieval Europe, feudal lords raised militias (see Knights of the Round Table, The) to protect their territory and interests. Following Saddam, Iraqi sheiks, Ayatollahs, nutjobs and politicians have been raising militias to protect their territory or people or ideology, minus the chivalry, and adding in huge doses of terrorism and kamikazi warfare.

I studied the scholarly journals when I took a course on foreign policy in college two years ago, and learned all I could about Iraqi Shi’ites. Back then there were lots of articles arguing that Iraqi Shias are fiercely nationalistic, and because they are a culture, language and physical appearance that is drastically different from their Persian co-religionists (Iranian Shias) and had no qualms about slaughtering Iranians en masse in the Iran-Iraq war, we should not worry about Iraq’s Shias opening the door to Iranian hegemony in the region. Now the word from foreign policy journals is that Arab Shias have strong ties with their Persian neighbors, with Iranian seminaries underpinning the Iraqi theological class (I wonder how they navigate the huge language barrier?) and that there is serious danger of uncorked Shia dominance and Iranian influence spurring a region-wide Shia vs. Sunni civil war. Will Iraqi Shias join Iran in a new religious Persian Empire? I still lean toward the first theory, that Iraqis will kill Iranians more than collaborate with them. But my G-d, even the most scholarly among us don’t know where the loyalties of most Iraqis lie! And THAT is perhaps the best argument against this war that I have.

Iran will certainly TRY to become a new hegemon in the region, but, in all likelihood, I think they’ll continue to be killed by the Dawa / Sadr guys. Meanwhile, militia groups have splintered off and grown until Iraq’s become this diffuse, hallucinogenic whirlwind of chaos and violence reminiscant of that gruesome Vietnam book we read in college. The horrors continue to trickle in, stories too ugly to print here, as Iraq sets new lows in the grim history of human depravity.

Meanwhile, we are fighting to prop up a government that is of, by and for the Sadrists. Sadr himself is returning to Iraq’s government.

Can our U.S. troops make a difference? In the latest Newsweek poll, 53 percent of Americans don’t believe the “surge” will reduce the violence in Baghdad and 67 percent think it is either “very” or “somewhat” likely to lead to more U.S. deaths in Iraq without getting the U.S. closer to our goals there.

On the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer last week, President Bush said, “Look, I had a choice to make, Jim, and that is – one – do what we’re doing. And one could define that maybe a slow failure. Secondly, withdraw out of Baghdad and hope for the best. I would think that would be expedited failure. And thirdly is to help this Iraqi government with additional forces – help them do what they need to do, which is to provide security in Baghdad.

Helping prop up the Dawa Party?

When U.S. troops pull out of Iraq after too many more deaths, will the Sadrists still control things?

It is past time to vigorously question the “we cannot afford the consequences of withdrawal” line everyone is repeating like zombies. Hell, I’ve even parroted this.

Why not skip the unnecessary decade of bloodshed, declare victory we deposed Saddam, pull the F out, and let the Sadrists have it? What I was trying to establish is, the Sadrists already have it, and pulling out likely won’t change that.

I think Bush isn’t really scared of a new Persian Empire, but won’t pull out because it would leave Iraq to Muqtada al-Sadr, and he can’t bear the thought of 3,000 U.S. servicemen dying to lead to a brutal Shi’ite theocracy being installed. And I don’t blame him there; it’d be a terrible outcome. Brutal theocracy is what Sadr is all about. We would all turn on the TV to find Grand Ayatollah Muqtada al-Sadr presiding over women being beaten for not wearing hijab, women’s driver’s licenses being revoked, and anyone caught with a musical instrument getting summarily executed. But all these things are already happening! The Iraqi symphony orchestra already fled a few years ago after facing beatings and intimidation for practicing their music. We may have to take the bitter pill that a theocracy is what the remaining Iraqis want (most of the anti-theocracy people are now in Jordan).

And isn’t Iraqi self-determination better than continuing this absurdist charade of “IRAQ WILL BE FREE WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT! FREEDOM IS ON THE MARCH! YOU HAVE NO CHOICE! YOU WILL BE FREE!”

Isn’t it a way better option to just bypass the next 15-20 years of wasted blood and treasure?

What are the moral and spiritual consequences of continuing to play with this fire?

Thanks for reading my lengthy ramblings. This is a fascinating discussion. Iraq is the wildfire sucking the oxygen away from every presidential contender and every domestic problem, and, again, is the dominant spiritual and moral issue of our time.
I look forward to your comments.


Freed Iraqi Shias Joining Forces With Iranian Military and Hezbollah

“Liberated” Iraqis Free To Join Forces With Hezbollah

Hezbollah and Iran Training Shia Militias In Iraq

Poster from the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shiite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr (upper left).

Hezbollah, under Iranian auspices, are training the Shiite Mahdi Army (seen above). How sweet and helpful of them. According to the New York Times article, Hezbollah Said to Help Shiite Army in Iraq:

The official said that 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. A small number of Hezbollah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said.

…militia had sent 300 fighters to Lebanon, ostensibly to fight alongside Hezbollah….

American officials say the Iranians have also provided direct support to Shiite militias in Iraq, including explosives and trigger devices for roadside bombs, and training for several thousand fighters, mostly in Iran. The training is carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, they say.

Gee, great, now we have Shias with advanced bomb-making capabilities and battle tactics to kill
Sunnis with, kill us with, and kill Israelis with.

Aren’t you glad Bush “liberated” these guys?